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How Important is Exercise to Control  Diabetes?

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How Important is Exercise to Control Diabetes?

Oct 21, 2015
Research shows that regular exercise is probably the most helpful thing you can do to absorb insulin and control your diabetes. It can also help prevent your pre-diabetes from worsening. Dr. Tim Graham is an endocrinologist and medical director of the Diabetes and Metabolism clinic at the University of Utah. In this podcast he talks about how stepping outside for just a few minutes per day can make a big difference in how you feel.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: How exercise is key for managing prediabetes and diabetes by improving the body's ability to use sugar. We'll talk more about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: Dr. Tim Graham is a diabetes expert. He's also an assistant professor of medicine, biochemistry and nutrition at University of Utah and is the medical director for the diabetes, obesity, and metabolism programs here at University of Utah Health Care.

I want to drill down a little bit into the importance of exercise for prediabetes, those who have been diagnosed with it, and diabetes, almost more important than nutrition, is what I've heard. Is that accurate?

Dr. Graham: Yeah, it's at least as important. We tend to, in our society, focus so much on body weight, and partly because we look at skinny people and they're the people that we see in Hollywood.

Interviewer: They look so healthy.

Dr. Graham: Yeah, they look so healthy, and yet without activity you're not so healthy. So it's not just about body weight, but it's also about keeping your body moving.

Really, prediabetes and diabetes are diseases of glucose metabolism. Normally, when you take a meal, your body produces insulin from the pancreas. Insulin circulates through the blood and tells the muscle to take up glucose so that right after a meal you might have a rise in glucose, but then when insulin kicks in, it causes the blood sugars to go down pretty quickly, because it tucks it away into muscle where you can use it later as glycogen when you're exercising.

The problem with diabetes is not necessarily that people don't make enough insulin, although in the case of Type 1 diabetes, we do see that. We can talk about that as a separate issue, but Type 2 diabetes, which is by far the most common type of diabetes, is a problem where people don't respond normally to insulin.

You make the insulin, in fact, you tend to make more insulin than the average person, but your body just doesn't respond normally. The skeletal muscle won't take up glucose in response to insulin. We call that condition insulin resistance, and that's really the classic Type 2 diabetes type problem.

One of the beauties of exercise is that it bypasses that defect by directly stimulating glucose uptake by muscle, so even if your insulin isn't working great, you can get your skeletal muscle to take up glucose more avidly or more efficiently just by exercising on a regular basis.

Interviewer: Can that condition be fixed by exercise, or is it just a workaround?

Dr. Graham: It's both. If you are exercising regularly and you have diabetes, you'll notice your blood sugars are more well-controlled with less and less insulin. Ultimately, if you have prediabetes and you can exercise regularly, you very likely will prevent yourself from developing the worsening condition of diabetes.

Interviewer: So it's a condition that can be taken care of.

Dr. Graham: By all means, yeah.

Interviewer: What kind of exercise are we talking about? People are busy; people don't like to be in pain.

Dr. Graham: There's been a lot of work done to figure out exactly what is enough exercise to have an effect. Frankly, as little as 150 minutes per week, now, that sounds awful, 150 minutes, but you break that down . . .

Interviewer: Sounds like a lot.

Dr. Graham: We're not talking about going to the gym and working out to the point where you're exhausted, we're talking about some brisk walking five times a week.

Interviewer: Or getting out in the garden or some house . . . I was vacuuming the house this weekend and I was sweating moving the furniture and bending down.

Dr. Graham: Yeah, truly. Anything that causes your heart rate to go up for a sustained period of time, causes you to sweat, most likely is having a good benefit from the standpoint of diabetes prevention.

Interviewer: So exercise, key for managing diabetes, for reducing your chance of getting it. If you have been diagnosed with prediabetes, to backing that off.

Dr. Graham: Absolutely.

Interviewer: Anything else that I need to know about exercise?

Dr. Graham: If you already have diabetes and you've had it for a sustained period of time, we do recommend that people get evaluated by their physician before they undertake a more rigorous exercise program. That's only because when you've had diabetes for a while, there's an increased risk that you might develop some heart problems, so we do recommend that people go out and at least get some evaluation to make sure that that's not a risk factor that they have before they undertake more rigorous exercise.

But the vast majority of people don't fit into that category who are contemplating starting exercise. Many people will have prediabetes, and frankly, they should feel comfortable just going out and getting it done.

Interviewer: If a little bit of exercise is good, is a lot of exercise even better? Do the benefits increase linearly?

Dr. Graham: They actually do. There are always people who we can see that develop syndromes of over exercise and sometimes that's associated with bulimia and other problems. But in most cases, people exercising more intensely for longer periods of time will be beneficial for people overall.

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